For climate action, ‘mass civil disobedience’ is the only way
A new climate breakdown resistance movement is forming in Britain. On Wednesday 31 October in Westminster, ‘Extinction Rebellion’ – a nascent mass direct-action group, in the style of Occupy – came together to launch a rolling protest against the UK government’s failure to act to prevent climate change.
In London’s Parliament Square, in front of Gandhi’s statue no less, thousands of people made a declaration of non-violent rebellion in an attempt to force concessions from the government. Their demands include: an immediate reversal of climate-toxic policies, net-zero emissions by 2025 and the establishment of a citizen’s assembly to oversee the radical changes necessary to halt global warming.
The group says that ‘peaceful, civil disobedience’ is the only way bring about the social change needed to expedite a reversal of fortunes for the human race. Otherwise, we are ‘on course for a next wave of extinction – a human extinction’.
They’re not wrong. A one-degree rise in global temperature since the industrial revolution has led to a sea-level rise that’s rapidly flooding Bangladesh and other Carribean, Pacific and coastal regions around the world. The group’s action came just a day after the World Wildlife Fund released a report warning that humans have wiped out 60 per cent of animal populations since 1970.
Fittingly, young people are at the heart of the movement. We spoke to fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Stockholm climate activist best known for starting a popular Friday strike movement in Sweden: Thunberg won’t be going to Friday classes until the Swedish government cleans up its act on climate change.
Thunberg and her parents drove in an electric car to Westminster, where she addressed a crowd of over a thousand people. ‘When I was eight, I found out about something called climate change, or global warming,’ she said. ‘Apparently it was something that humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turn off the lights to save energy and to recycle paper to save resources.
‘I remember thinking it was very strange that humans, an animal species among others could be capable of changing the Earth’s climate. Because if we were, and it was really happening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turned on the TV, everything would be about that.
‘Why wasn’t it [burning fossil fuels] made illegal? To me, that did not add up.’
Teddy Walden, 18, is another member of Generation Z who rejects climate apathy.
‘If everyone consumed like Americans, we’d have gone through five Earths by now. That’s shocking,’ she said.
The co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, academic and activist Roger Hallam, believes mass movements like this one are the only way to force the radical changes needed.
‘A hundred years of political sociology shows you can only change entrenched power through creating economic costs for the people who hold that entrenched power,’ he said.
‘Through mass civil resistance, we’re going to create a new global regime that takes our responsibilities seriously towards the next generation.’
He contrasts this mode of organizing to other more technocratic and policy-focused work by NGOs. Extinction Rebellion has occupied the offices of Greenpeace, for example, to critique their ineffectiveness in lobbying governments to reduce emissions
‘The NGOs have been working for 30 years to reduce global carbon emissions and during that time they’ve increased by 60 per cent, which quite possibly has condemned every future generation to a living hell.
‘So in that context it’s probably worth trying something different. We went to Greenpeace to get them to tell their members to join mass civil disobedience, which has been shown to change political regimes rapidly.
But Hallam is frank about the challenges ahead. He expects Extinction Rebellion’s demands to be ignored by government. ‘They’ll ignore us, and then they’ll fight us and we’ll win. We haven’t got to the fight stage – which will be non-violent – but we will in the next two weeks.’
In a taste of what’s to come, soon after, more than a thousand people blocked roads circling Parliament Square, and 15 were arrested.
George Monbiot – the notable environmentalist and journalist was among them. Speaking earlier in the day, he made a call to arms. ‘We’ve waited long enough, we are waiting no longer. No one else will deliver it for us, no one is left but us.’
‘We claim to live in a democracy. In many ways it resembles a plutocracy – your votes should count [but] money counts instead.
‘The money of the city, and the fossil fuel industry and the farming lobby and the fishing industry and the auto-manufacturers and the airlines lobby. We are not heard because they are heard.
‘Parliament will not do this for us, corporations will not do this for us and I’m sorry to say that the big NGOs won’t either.’ Monbiot added that though this is the only planet known to support life, the intelligent bit has yet to be demonstrated.
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party said we should embrace non-violent direct action (NVDA) where appropriate.
‘NVDA should be done in a considered way, its not something you do off the cuff, you consider it, you weigh it up strategically and when it’s done in those kinds of ways for the right reasons we’re whole heartedly behind it,’ said Bartley, whose fellow co-leader, MP Caroline Lucas, was arrested in 2013 for direct action against anti-fracking.
‘None of the broadcast media picked up on the fact that the chancellor didn’t mention climate change once in his budget,’ he adds.
‘The YouGov issues tracker is seeing the environment go up and up [as a concern] for people and the politicians haven’t caught up yet.’
As for their plan for mass civil disobedience in the coming weeks, Extinction Rebellion said: ‘If the government does not respond seriously to our demands, civil disobedience will commence from the 12 November’ with a return to Parliament Square programmed for 'Rebellion Day', on Saturday 17 November.
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